This Saturday, my wife and I (finally) head off on our honeymoon, starting off in New York – a city I’ve wanted to visit and see for myself for as long as I’ve looked out on the world.
I’ve written about other cities before (see box), so it seemed logical that I should write about the one city that perhaps has had more songs written about it than any other. But, with there being so many songs, it was important to find a way to bring the list down to a manageable level.
So, I decided that the songs I chose had to be about life within the city of New York (the five boroughs, then), but also the acts performing had to also have origins there. Which meant a few potentially iconic songs had to miss out (including Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City, about four different Leonard Cohen songs, Ryan Adams’ New York, New York, and anything by Bruce Springsteen, too (who is of course from over the river in New Jersey).
Even with these self-imposed rules, I still missed out a few songs that I would have otherwise included.
Suzanne Vega is a folk-inspired singer who came to prominence in the mid-eighties, having grown up from the age of two in a few areas of Manhattan Island, and many of her earlier songs in particular were notable for the exquisite detail of life in New York (Ironbound/Fancy Poultry is another worth hearing). But perhaps none struck a nerve quite like Tom’s Diner. Based upon watching life through the glass of the near-eponymous restaurant/café that she used to stop for coffee in, the same business found even greater fame featured frequently in Seinfeld as the base of the fictional Monks Café.
Tales From The Hard Side
State of the World Address
These guys were early exponents of mixing together hardcore, thrash metal and rap culture, presumably from their time growing up in the-then tough streets of Brooklyn (nowadays much-changed, as are many large urban city districts – gentrification is certainly not something unique to New York). This song – one of many in their earlier days to deal with social problems in their borough, makes things clear of what they think of the drug dealing and violence abounding: “This is my neighborhood / who the fuck let you in”
Liberty and Justice for…
One of the legendary, massively influential hardcore punk bands from the city in the 80s (all of whom were mainstays of CBGBs at the time), Agnostic Front’s sound has echoed through generations of bands since, both in New York and far beyond. Their songs were often strongly political, rooted in demands for social and political change, or simply detailing what they saw. This song is presumably one of the latter, detailing the horrors of heroin use in New York in the mid-80s.
53rd & 3rd
About a decade or so earlier, The Ramones were blazing a new trail as one of the first punk bands to really break through (not that their sales in the first instance really made that clear). I have to confess that I’d never really listened to the lyrics of their songs that closely, and having done so for this, it’s really remarkable just how dark many of their songs were. Here’s one: a tale of a Vietnam vet “turning tricks” – prostituting himself – on the street to even remotely make a living, but kills the client to “prove” he’s not homosexual…
Turn On The Bright Lights
Interpol were one of those bands that made a massive splash in the music press after the turn of the millenium, as everybody seemed to be scrambling for a new musical movement to pin some positivity to. That movement came from New York, as it turned out, alongside other bands like The Strokes – but the weird thing was that none of the bands really sounded like each other. Interpol had a cloak of darkness around them, making post-punk (notably Joy Division)-influenced songs that had a wider appeal in their amazing way with a tune. This song, though, was a gloriously bleak ballad, with oblique comments on the state of the city of at the time, and what appears to be sarcastic suggestions that “New York cares“.
New York City Cops
Is This It
The Strokes, actually, made probably even more of a seismic influence on alternative music styles and fashions in the post-millenium years, their retro-influenced sound (and recording styles) ushering in a landslide of garage-rock-esque bands that didn’t abate for some years. And while the later Strokes material barely came anywhere near the impact of their debut album, their place was assured thanks to that one album. One song garnered quite a bit of controversy, particularly in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks just months after release (which saw the song swiftly dropped from the album) – this sneering, bitter tirade partially aimed at the city’s police force. Criticizing emergency services, of course, is an emotive subject at the best of times, but going on some of the eye-watering figures here, perhaps the band might have had a point.
My My Metrocard
Kathleen Hanna’s later project was sonically very different to Bikini Kill. Very much more electronic-based, it was poppy and often fun-sounding, but very much rooted in visceral politics, as this song shows. Partly a love-song to the ease of getting around NYC by the Subway (hence the MetroCard name), it switches tack for one verse to rip into then-mayor Rudi Giuliani (who of course is about to become a big name again with apparently an important role for him under Trump) for sweeping away a lot of underground culture in the city in the name of “cleaning up” (something other bands in this list will also refer too).
An Open Letter to NYC
To The 5 Boroughs
The Beastie Boys were always a band proud of their roots in New York (and specifically Brooklyn, memorably referenced early on in their tourbus antics of No Sleep Till Brooklyn, where they can’t wait to get home). But one of the few songs they’ve done that specifically mentions their home city is a love letter to it – referencing boroughs, areas, places, and people, and most importantly noting the melting pot of races and nationalities, living side-by-side and making the city work – something that Mayor Bill De Blasio this week noted in his opposition to some of President-elect Trump’s plans for immigrants in particular.
Sound of Da Police
Return of the Boom Bap
There are many, many rappers from New York, mind – the genre did really begin there – and so it turns out, there loads of rap songs about the city. Picking one more, then, became kinda hard, but then, I thought, why not go back to one of the earlier moments on this subject? Step forward Bronx native KRS-One, whose furious early single about police brutality and alleged racial discrimination has been covered, parodied and discussed many, many times since.
New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down
Sound of Silver
James Murphy’s band have long been critical darlings – made even clearer by the joyous reaction to their unexpected return in the past year – and aside from his near-effortless ability to cross between the worlds of indie rock and dance music, creating a groovy hybrid that have ridiculously wide appeal, he was also very good at skewering the “cool” types. This song – a stark ballad, is a love letter to his home city, but it is one where the loss of much of the city he loves, as gentrification and other changes sweep much of the history away.
I’m curious, and more than a little excited, to see what New York City shows me. Bring it on.